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All that’s wrong with ‘All is Lost’

Good sailing movies are rare, so it was with great anticipation that I went to see “All is Lost,” starring Robert Redford. If you know nothing about sailing, the film is a great white-knuckle chronicle of man fighting adversity. But I’ve been sailing since high school and I was profoundly distracted, stunned and disappointed to see so many sailing faux pas.

Robert Redford's character in the film blunders in ways no experienced sailor would.

Although I’ve been a serious coastal cruiser for decades, I have never done a solo bluewater passage. But if I were to do one, I would use the laughable “All is Lost” as a primer on how not to handle a disaster at sea. It’s clear the production team either didn’t think to hire technical advisers or ignored any advice they got.

The problems start with the opening, when Redford — identified as Our Man in the credits — collides with a partially submerged shipping container. If my boat hits something, such as the bottom or another boat if the anchor drags or the wind shifts in an anchorage, I bolt out of my bunk to see what’s going on and take action. When Redford collides with the container seriously enough to hole the boat, he wakes dreamily and then sits there awhile before getting up to investigate.

I should add that the Indian Ocean is so calm that it’s hard to imagine this low-speed collision puncturing his hull. And how could the hole be amidships, where it conveniently floods the nav station, and not on the bow? In any event, Redford inexplicably ambles about the cabin rather than immediately stopping the water flooding into the impaled hull before his engine and batteries are out of commission. He never starts the bilge pump or manually bails. Then he uses his sea anchor, not his sails or engine, to disengage the boat from the container. I can’t imagine that a sea anchor would have much impact on the speed of a sunken shipping container, particularly in calm conditions.

Once free, the skipper decides to go back to the container to retrieve the sea anchor. He sails bow-on into the container, landing with a bang — the first of many episodes that raise questions about his seamanship.

Redford does not take advantage of the calm conditions and stable platform provided by the container to immediately make a better short-term fix, perhaps by placing a sail over the opening or installing a fiberglass patch over the gap. Instead, he sails away so he can do the patch more dramatically from a bosun’s chair with the boat heeling, despite the lack of wind.

His electronics were soaked and antenna mangled — even before the boat rolls in a storm — so he becomes an instant expert on celestial navigation. I’m jealous of his skills. And why a bluewater solo sailor would have a backup sextant but no EPIRB is inexplicable, other than because a quick rescue would spoil the plotline.

Once the hole is patched, he resumes course with sails badly trimmed on a tack that puts the not-too-solid patch underwater. Things are looking good until a storm looms. Even someone whose experience is limited to a Sunfish on a pond might think to douse the sails and don foul weather gear. Not this sailor. Redford shaves — leisurely!

Only when the heavens open and the boat is heeling violently does he decide it’s time to go forward to take in the jib. He does this smartly by clipping his harness to a lifeline on the leeward side instead of a deck fitting on the windward side or, better yet, the jackline he should have rigged before shaving or even leaving port. He ends up in the water. What a surprise. What’s more surprising is that he gets back aboard without assistance.

The boat is rolled a few times and dismasted. Plausible. What’s not explained is why it begins to sink afterward with so little water in the cabin: He still hasn’t bailed. Anyway, Redford reacts logically by deploying his life raft. But he gathers only a few items for self-preservation, including a water jug and flares. Good choices, but why not grab everything useful before the boat is gone? He sleeps before going back for more but still leaves much behind until it’s too late.

And once he abandons ship for good, he leaves the raft attached to the boat by its painter. Didn’t it occur to him that he could be dragged down for a visit to Davy Jones’ Locker?

Once he sets up housekeeping on the raft, the questions continue. He makes a solar still from his empty water can. Smart. But he never rigs a system to collect rainwater. Dumb. When ships approach, he fires off his flares, using the wrong types for day and night signaling. Then he makes a signal fire in the empty water container, placing it in the bottom of the life raft so that when it burns out of control it sets the raft on fire. Why not put it on the side of the raft, where he could dump it overboard if it got out of control, or even hold it higher by hand to better attract attention?

I spent the entire movie picking apart the implausible details, and I’m sure I missed many. “All is Lost” will have one positive value: It will provide endless fodder for discussion and laughter at dockside bars.

February 2014 issue